A Tale of Two Ruins: The Jewellery of Plundering and Violence

Hanaa Malallah, Zainab Bahrani & Annie Webster

Fig. 1. Portrait of Lady Layard painted in 1870 by Vicente Palmaroli González, edited by Hanaa Malallah in 2021 to show Lady Layard wearing the “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” instead of the original Assyrian style jewellery.

This research paper focuses on two collections of jewellery, each created more than a century apart yet both intimately entangled with a history of violence and archaeological plundering in Iraq. The first collection, “Lady Layard’s Jewellery” (Fig.2), was made by the Phillips Brothers in 1869 using antiquities pillaged from the region of Iraq when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. The ancient stones that make up the necklace, bracelet and earrings consist of cylinder and stamp seals that Sir Austen Henry Layard1 (1817-1894) took from Iraq and had made into a wedding gift for his wife, Enid. Layard was a famed traveller, archaeologist and political agent who conducted excavations near Mosul in northern Iraq. During these excavations, he removed a large number of Assyrian antiquities, objects, and parts of buildings which were transported to, and then displayed in, the British Museum.2

The second collection, “Bomb Wreck Jewellery” (Fig. 3), was created from the wreckage of two car bombs which exploded on Al Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad on 5th March 2007. This explosion claimed the lives of thirty-eight people.3 These sets of jewellery each encapsulate two very different processes of ruination; when brought together, they testify to continuing forms of colonial violence and appropriation in the region, whether through archaeological excavations or military occupation. With each set of jewellery, the removal of ruined objects to the West decontextualizes the history of these ruins and reinscribes the discursive violence of colonial archaeological practices. These sets of jewellery, one formed from ancient artefacts and the other moulded from the wreckage of car bombs, have led us to consider how they, and the materials out of which they are formed, stand at once as a form of adornment designed to bring joy to those who wear and admire them, but at the same time reveal a history of violence, human suffering, and imperialism in Iraq.

Fig. 2. Lady Layard's Necklace, bracelet and earrings formed out of cylinder seals.
British Museum number: 105115

Fig. 3. “Bomb Wreck Jewellery’’ 2008, image by Staal, printed by Malallah.

Archaeology and politics have always been linked, as numerous scholars have made clear.4 In Iraq, this link can be seen in the nineteenth century through the endeavours of political agents and diplomats such as Layard and the French consul-cum-archaeologist Paul Emile Botta (1802-1870), who removed antiquities to the British Museum as well as the Louvre in Paris. More recently, the 2003 US-led war and occupation also utilised antiquity for its political ends and public relations operations. In the wake of th